Brazil court drops tax case against billionaire financier Safra

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A Brazilian federal court dropped a case against Joseph Safra, the world’s richest banker, over an alleged scheme to pay bribes to government officials in return for waiving tax debts.

The media office of the Brasilia-based Regional Federal Tribunal for the 1st Region said the decision favoring Safra was approved by the court in a 2-to-1 ruling.

In a statement, the Safra Group said the ruling prevents “the continuation of the action for lack of just cause and the proceeding ... is now closed.”

In March, prosecutors asked that Safra be charged on claims he had knowledge of a 2014 plan by executives at an asset management unit of his Banco Safra SA to pay 15.3 million reais ($4.6 million) in bribes to federal tax auditors. Safra repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The probe and subsequent charges against Safra stemmed from a broader police inquiry known as “Operation Zealots,” focused on kickbacks paid by companies through lobbyists.

Dozens of Brazilian firms, including steelmaker Gerdau SA and several banks including Banco Bradesco SA, have been under investigation for suspected bribes.

The investigation centers on whether companies bribed members of CARF, a body within the finance ministry that hears appeals on tax disputes, to get favorable rulings that reduced or waived the amounts owed.

According to a person with direct knowledge of Safra’s process, the court’s ruling cannot be appealed. The Lebanese-Brazilian billionaire, whose fortune is estimated at about $19 billion by Forbes Magazine, controls a banking and financial conglomerate that operates in 19 countries.

Operation Zealots has not only implicated some of Brazil’s most influential firms but also some of the nation’s foremost power brokers. Luiz Carlos Trabuco, Bradesco’s chief executive officer, has been accused alongside three of the bank’s main executives.

Trabuco has denied any wrongdoing.

Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown